How big should a team be?

This is a question that comes up time and time again as companies try to develop effective organisations (and sometimes, let’s be honest, to save cost on managers).

Research, experience and human nature support the use of teams at work; human nature also drives us to ask how to make them most effective, and size seems like a simple question to ask. It’s a question, however, usually answered, rather unhelpfully, by “it depends” – so I decided to put together a few suggestions that may help narrow down the dependencies.

Before I go on, it’s worth mentioning that size is by no means the only factor in team effectiveness. There are also big questions around team dynamics (take a look here at what Google discovered about the most important feature of effective teams), personalities, skills, backgrounds and diversity that will have a huge impact. Here, I’m assuming you have got (or will get) those things right and am just looking at how many of those carefully-chosen people you can sensibly put together and still expect good results…

When you’re ready to start thinking about team size, ask yourself these questions:

What kind of work does the team do?

  • How much structure is there around tasks? If people don’t need to work together to solve a problem – perhaps because there is an established way to deal with it that doesn’t vary that each individual can apply – that is less a team and more a work group. An example here would be a group of customer services representatives vs. a team of product developers.
  • Do team members need to work collaboratively? Team size matters most when people have to work together to solve a problem without a clear answer; it is also more relevant when teams need to interact significantly all together. When these teams become too large there is more opportunity for social loafing; productivity tends to level out at around five team members.

Are you considering team interactions or manager capacity?

  • How many people will each member of the team have to interact with? For anyone interested, the formula to calculate this is (N2 – N)/2, e.g. in a team of five there are ten different people interactions. There are several well-known “rules” about effective team sizes that all give a similar answer in the range of 4 – 10 including: the pizza rule – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos reckons you need to be able to feed a team with two pizzas; the table rule – teams should be able to sit around one table and have a group conversation; and, the van rule – teams should be able to fit in a van.
  • How many people can a person manage effectively? “Manage effectively” is the key here, and assumes managers are having regular individual development conversations, thinking about work allocation, and also keeping up with their own work. Both research and experience suggest this number is somewhere between ten and fifteen, depending on the type of work (work groups with structured tasks would clearly fit higher in this range).

Is it a permanent work team or a project team?

  • Does the team only need to come together for a project? Project teams are an interesting case; members may need to collaborate on some elements, but can equally work independently on others and the project leader often does not have line management responsibility for team members. In these teams, clarity and communication can be more important factors, with size determined by the range of expertise (and amount of capacity) required.

Making sure your organisation is structured as effectively as possible will help your team members to work together more effectively, your managers to manage more effectively and you to sleep more effectively!

It can be really tricky to find the time and space to take a fresh look at your organisation and identify where things could work better. If you would like a no-obligation chat to look at your organisation structures please get in touch with Hummingbird Consulting. We would be delighted to offer a fresh perspective.

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